It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.
Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.
For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE
“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”
The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.
All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.
Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.
Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.
Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:
the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.
Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.
Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.
Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.
Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.
Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.
A few books about the death of Socrates
* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.
During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.
There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7″ from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.
For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.
** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.
† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.
On this date in 1752, 32-year-old Mary Blandy was hanged for the murder of her father, Francis. He had died in agony on August 14 the previous year, having been sick for months.
That Mary had poisoned her father with arsenic was not in dispute; the evidence proved it and she admitted it herself, even before he died.
The question was as to her motive, and her intentions. Mary conceded she had caused Francis’s death, but denied having ever meant to harm him.
The events that lead to Francis Blandy’s demise at the age of 61 began in 1746. Mary was Francis’s beloved only child and an old maid by the standards of day. They lived in Henley-Upon-Thames, Oxfordshire, UK.
Although scarred from a bout with smallpox, she was well-educated, witty and intelligent, and advertised a dowry of £10,000. But she had never been able to find a suitor her father approved of, until Captain William Henry Cranstoun came along.
Cranstoun was several years older than Mary, short, ugly, a compulsive gambler and not terribly bright, but he was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, the younger son of an earl. When he proposed in 1747, both father and daughter happily said yes.
Unfortunately for the two lovers, Francis Blandy soon learned that Cranstoun was already encumbered with a wife and child back in Scotland. Cranstoun swore (falsely) that he was not legally married to the woman and she’d only ever been his mistress; smitten Mary believed him, but Francis didn’t take kindly to the deception and he showed his would-be son-in-law the door.
Cranstoun, however, was not going to let a £10,000 dowry slip through his fingers so easily.
While he tried (unsuccessfully) to annul his existing marriage, he remained in touch with Mary for years and told her about a special powder made by wise women in Scotland, which caused those who took it to forgive their enemies.
Mary was skeptical, but Cranstoun swore it really worked and said he’d taken it once himself and felt its effects. He obtained some of the powder and convinced Mary to start slipping it into her father’s food and tea, so his heart would soften and he would allow his daughter to marry the man she loved.
Such was Mary’s story, at any rate, and she stuck with it until her dying day.
She swore she did not realize the magic powder was toxic. Sure, Francis rapidly became sick with heartburn and stomach pains, but he had suffered these symptoms before. Then his condition worsened. He vomited constantly and all of his teeth fell out. Mary finally summoned a doctor.
By then it was too late, for both father and daughter. The family servants became suspicious after several of them got violently sick when they drank tea intended for Francis.
One of them noticed a white grainy substance in the bottom of a bowl of gruel Mary had fed her ailing father. The servants took the substance to Francis’s doctor, who determined it was arsenic. Around the same time, another servant saw Mary throw a bundle of Cranstoun’s letters into the fire. She also tried to burn a packet which the servant rescued from the flames; it contained white powder identical to the arsenic that was rapidly burning through the old man’s entrails from the inside out.
When he was informed his daughter had poisoned him and guessed why, Francis refused to be angry with her, saying, “Poor love-sick girl! What will a woman not do for the man she loves?”
As he lay in extremis, Mary rushed to his bedside and begged her father to forgive her. An indulgent parent to the very end (or perhaps the “forgiveness powder” really had worked), he blessed his wayward child and told her he would “pray to God to bless thee, and to amend thy life.” He blamed Cranstoun for everything.
A few days later he was dead.
Mary ran from the house after his death, pursued by an angry mob, and took refuge in the Little Angel Pub. Eventually she was persuaded to surrender herself to the authorities. On August 17, she was arrested.
When Francis’s estate was settled, its worth was determined to be only about £4,000. Cranstoun would have never gotten that £10,000 dowry: it didn’t exist.
‘A vast concourse of people’ gathered for the trial, including many students from the university (whom one prosecutor could not resist lecturing ‘See here the dreadful consequences of disobedience to a parent’). The proceedings lasted but a single day, albeit a long one, running from eight in the morning till nine at night. Conducting herself ‘with more than masculine firmness’, Mary continued to insist that she was the victim of a cruel deception (‘What women can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make of us?’), but the jury would have none of it. Devoting only five minutes to deliberation, not even retiring from the courtroom, they pronounced the defendant guilty.
Just before her execution, Mary wrote out her side of the story, which can be read in full online. Whorton records her death:
The prisoner was hanged five weeks later, on 6 April 1752, still avowing her innocence: ‘May I not meet with eternal salvation,’ she declared from the scaffold, ‘nor be acquitted by the almighty God, in whose awful presence I am instantly to appear,’ if guilty. Then, ‘without shedding one tear,’ Mary Blandy pulled her handkerchief over her face and dropped into eternity.
Her last words were, “For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.”
There was a lot of public sympathy for Mary, particularly after her execution, but none for Captain Cranstoun.
The Newgate Calendar called him a “profligate wretch” and “a disgrace to the noble blood from which he derived existence.” He escaped the grip of British justice by the skin of his teeth, going into hiding in the Continent when he found out about his fiancee’s arrest.
In the end, however, he got what was coming to him: nine months after Mary’s death, in Belgium, he was stricken by an unspecified intestinal ailment and met much the same end as Francis Blandy.
There was plenty of news coverage about Mary’s case, which had all the hallmarks of a morality play, and which was, in fact, made into one titled The Fair Parricide: A Tragedy in Three Acts. On top of this was the controversy over Mary’s intentions: was she was a conniving and ruthless little minx, a lovesick and pathetically naive girl, or something in between? The Newgate Calendar summed it up thusly:
With regard to Miss Blandy, the public have ever been divided in opinion on her case. Those who have presumed on her innocence have tacitly acknowledged that she was very weak, which contradicts the accounts we have of her genius and mental acquirements. On the contrary, those who have insisted on her guilt, have made no allowances for the weakness of the female mind; nor considered the influence of an artful man over the heart of a girl in love.
Her solemn declaration of her innocence would almost tempt one to think that she was innocent; for it is next to impossible to suppose that a woman of her sense and education would depart this life with a wilful lie in her mouth.
Be all this as it may, an obvious lesson is to be learnt from her fate. — Young ladies should be cautious of listening to the insidious address of artful love as they know not how soon, and how unsuspectedly, their hearts may be engaged to their own destruction, founded on the violation of all their nobler duties.
Mary Blandy was buried between her parents in the Henley Parish Church. There is no trace of her grave today, but her ghost is said to haunt the Little Angel Pub and also the site of her execution, which is the present-day Westford shopping center.
She would be remembered for hundreds of years after her death. Scottish lawyer and true crime writer William Roughead published an examination of her case, The Trial of Mary Blandy, in 1914; it is available free online here. Roughead concluded Mary had deliberately murdered her father. The case was made into a BBC miniseries, and in 1950, Joan Morgan published a novel based on the story, called The Hanging Wood, later retitled simply Mary Blandy.
Late this night in 1969, a platoon of seven Navy SEALs slipped into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.*
At their head was a 25-year-old lieutenant, the future United States Senator Bob Kerrey.
Thanh Phong was reportedly an official U.S. Army free fire zone. That meant that any Vietnamese civilians within it were presumptively enemies and could be slain at will — according to the U.S. Army, if not to any recognizable law of war.
In Thanh Phong, they were slain. Nearly every single person in the town.
Kerrey’s Raiders — the commando team’s comradely self-designation — were hunting a local National Liberation Front “general secretary” purported to be in Thanh Phong. By “hunting,” we mean they intended to murder him; given the nature and timing of the operation, it was presumably part of the brute-force assassination program Operation Speedy Express and/or its equally sinister CIA-run cousin, the Phoenix Program.
On this particular mission, Lt. Kerrey’s team first encountered an unexpected hut, not on their map. Fearing the people inhabiting it would blow their cover, they entered and killed the five inhabitants: quietly, intimately, at close quarters with their knives. It was an old man, a woman, and three young children. It’s a nasty business but it’s not what qualifies Thanh Phong as a potential execution … though it may explain the execution that followed.
After these unfortunate villagers were disposed of, the SEALs moved on towards the doomed hamlet. This same platoon had been to Thanh Phong two weeks before, and reported then that it held nothing but a few women. On February 25, they found much the same scene: no “general secretary.” Just 16 women and children.
Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.
Rather: What was the make-up of this group?
Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.
Rather: So you got all the people out of there.
Klann: We herded them together and in a group.
Rather: Were any of these people armed?
Klann: I don’t believe so.
Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?
Klann: I didn’t see any.
Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?
Klann: Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?
Rather: What did you do then?
Klann: We killed them.
Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?
Klann: We shot them all.
Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?
Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.
Rather: What was the order?
Klann: To kill them.
Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.
Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?
Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.
Rather: Do you remember him saying that?
Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.
Rather: And then what happened?
Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.
Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?
Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.
Rather: At roughly what range?
Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.
Rather: Then did the shooting stop?
Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.
Rather: Was it quiet?
Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.
Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?
Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.
Rather: What happened to that baby?
Klann: Shot like the rest of em.
Klann’s testimony of a summary execution comports with that of a Vietnamese woman who says she hid on the outskirts of the tiny village and witnessed the slaughter.
Bob Kerrey has a different version of these events. The reader is invited to peruse the evidence available and conclude as desired; for me, Kerrey’s version is not very persuasive especially given the witness testimony to the contrary and the known normalization of atrocities in Indochina.
Kerrey agrees with Klann that the entire village ended up slaughtered together in a heap; a complaint against this atrocity was officially filed with the Army by Vietnamese locals within days of the incident, so there’s not much scope to deny the outcome. But Kerrey claims this happened when the SEAL team received incoming fire as they approached the village, then started shooting back wildly in the dark. Only after the bullets stopped flying did they find the civilians 50 to 100 yards further on.
Improbably — but much more consistent with an intentional, close-range massacre — all these women and children chanced to be huddled together, and all of them were stone dead from the crossfire. Not a one of these people accidentally winged in the night was wounded but alive, says Kerrey.
Kerrey’s commentary in Vistica’s initial story and its follow-ups suggests the judicious politician he had by that time become. In 2001 he had just retired from the Senate and was an elder statesman in government; he was said to be weighing a 2004 presidential bid. (His actual next gig, not anticipated at the time the story broke, was the 9/11 Commission.)
In interviews with Vistica and subsequently, Kerrey waffled and qualified cagily — shifting from a flat denial, to a weird acknowledgment that “it’s possible a slight version of that happened.” He wouldn’t commit to asserting that there really was incoming fire. He moved the conversation wherever possible to the abiding torments of conscience and the slipperiness of memory and perspective, as if this could span the distance from “summary execution” to “accidentally killed in the crossfire.” He maintained that there were only men in the first hut — that hut, alone among the village — but that this was only an indirect recollection since he didn’t enter it or participate in the killings.
“Please understand,” Kerrey emailed to Vistica in 2000, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.” Desire is a striking word to select.
For all their plausible deniability, Kerrey’s remarks on this matter markedly lacked indignation at bearing such a monstrous charge. Kerrey’s great and unfeigned sense of personal guilt was oddly mirrored by his inability to own a specifically culpable act. The Senator expressly declined to deny Gerhard Klann’s “memory.” (Klann said Kerrey urged him not to talk about Thanh Phong.)
Kerrey won a Bronze Star for Thanh Phong. “The net result of his patrol,” according to a citation Kerrey has acknowledged is fanciful, “was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”
Seventeen days after Thanh Phong, Kerrey’s service career came to an end when a grenade exploded at his feet during another assassination mission. Kerrey earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for continuing to direct fire while crippled by wounds on that day; by accounts, he spent the several years following mired deep in depression.
“I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die,” he said of Thanh Phong in 2001. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”
It goes without saying that war crimes in Vietnam remain much too sensitive for the U.S. to grapple with formally. The story is out there now, but it’s been effectively reburied as far as the American public memory goes — another everyday horror in a horrible conflict. More information might oneday surface, but the matter will only be adjudicated between Gerhard Klann, Bob Kerrey, their comrades that night, and their Maker.
Not so in Vietnam where — with all due respect to the pangs that conscience can exact — the real victims lie.
A display of the sewer pipe where the three children killed at the first hut tried to hide, along with photographs and an explanatory placard describing the Thanh Phong massacre, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) images by Schwede66.
* The only other member of the team who has spoken publicly, Mike Ambrose, backs Klann’s version of the hut narrative, and (mostly) Kerrey’s version of the (non-)execution. As Vistica’s initial investigation was going public, Kerrey convened a meeting of the other Raiders, their first since Vietnam; the group issued a statement denying that they had committed an execution of prisoners.
On the Sunday night, 15th September, 1489, Signor Domenico Gentile of Viterbo, apostolic writer, Francesco Maldente, canon of Forli and Conrado, also Battista of Spell, notary of the Apostolic Camera, Lorenzo Signoretto, writer in the Register of Bulls, and Bartolommeo Budello, procurator of the Penitentiary, were successively taken and detained in the Castle of San Angelo on a charge of forging apostolic letters.
The Lord Domenico aforesaid confessed that he had forged about fifty apostolic letters or bulls, containing various matters, in the following way: The Lord Francesco would discover matters to be despatched and agree with the parties upon the sum which they were to pay after the despatch of letters. When the agreement had been made and a bank named by the party for paying the sum agreed upon to be paid when the letters were presented to the bank, then he would despatch one that was expected, or some matter that would pass easily through all the offices by the royal way.
When this was done, the Lord Domenico aforementioned washed out all the writing of the bull, or that part which he did not want, with a certain fluid, restored the paper with flour and stiffened it again. Afterward he wrote on it the matter concerning which Francesco had agreed with the party, leaving in the bull the names of the rescribendary, computators, and other officials.
More often he changed the stamp, and put on another, according to the nature of the matter. He also used different inks. That with which he wrote the first matter to be despatched in the proper way was made of gum or some other material, but was certainly indelible. But the other, which he used to write over the bull that had been erased, was ordinary ink. In this way they gave forged bulls to the parties.
Within about two years they had despatched divers matters, for example, dispensations to one or two benefices for Friars of the Orders of Mendicants, unions of many benefices to the incomes of certain abbots with permission to rule these in an order changeable at pleasure, a dispensation for a certain priest of the Diocese of Rouen, who had married a wife, to the effect that he might lawfully keep her and many others for which they had received sometimes a hundred, two hundred, two hundred and fifty, and two thousand ducats, as is related in the process instituted against them.
The said Francesco also made confession, and on Sunday, the 18th of October, at about nine in the evening, they both were led from the castle aforementioned to the Castle of Soldano, and before they reached that place they believed they were condemned to death. For the auditor of the Camera, the Bishop of Cesena, and the Lord Bartolommeo Deolpito, first apostolic notary and governor of the city, who in their official capacity had prosecuted them, told the said Francesco that if he named his fellow accomplices our Most Holy Lord would be pleased to bestow the office of abbreviator upon him and set him at liberty, and he believing that he would do this accused the above named and several others.
On behalf of the Lord Domenico, his father who had attended our Most Holy Lord in the first illness of his pontificate, and his two brothers interceded most earnestly with the cardinals and other influential men in the city for his life. But no one could prevail upon our Most Holy Lord. So, after they had been established in the said castle, they were told that they were to die on the morrow; and therefore were bidden to take heed to the salvation of their souls, and priests were sent to them to hear their confession and strengthen them in the faith.
On Monday, the 19th of October, 1489, there was a consistory and the auditor of the Camera aforesaid with the governor came to the Castle of Soldano where they passed definite sentence against the said Domenico and Francesco, degraded them, deprived them of office and emoluments, and handed them over to the secular court.
Then mass was celebrated in the said castle, at which the said Domenico and Francesco were present, and at the close they received the holy communion from the hands of the celebrant; after this they were led to the Piazza di San Pietro, where a platform had been erected in a space not far from the lowest step, four rods long, three wide, and one high, or thereabouts.
There the said Francesco who was a priest was robed in full vestments in the usual way. Then the summary of the case was read by the notary, Antonio of Paimpol. After the reading of it, Francesco was degraded and given over to the secular court into the hands of Ambrosino, the apparitor.
After he had been given over, Domenico who had only the first tonsure was robed in a surplice and degraded from that rank by the Father Pietro Paolo, Lord Bishop of Santa Agata, who vested himself in stole and cope upon the platform, and put on in front a plain alb over the rochet. After his degradation Domenico was given over to the court and the said apparitor.
Their heads were not shaved otherwise than they had been before, nor were they stripped of the clothes in which they came from the castle, because of their office and because such was the pleasure of the Bishop of Cesena, the auditor.
After this the aforesaid having been degraded were placed upon a chariot which stood ready there, Domenico on the right and Francesco on the left.
In front of them were seated a friar of the Order of Minors, their confessor, in accordance with the observance in parts of France, and another of the society of the Misericordia who held a crucifix and was robed in the garb of that society with his face covered. Behind the degraded ones were erected two rods, and to the top of them cords were fastened, on which were hung four of the bulls despatched and forged by them.
In this way they were conducted by the Bridge of San Angelo past the Castle of Soldano and hard by the house of the Cardinal of Ascanio, past the Hospital of the Germans, close to the house of the Lord Falco by the Pario straight to another street, thence by the bridge to the Campo dei Fiori, where near the corner by the steps and the Taberna Vacca, so-called, the place of execution had been prepared in the form of a hut, having a wooden pillar erected in the center, and surrounded by piled-up faggots. To the upper part of the column had been fixed two ropes. Below the ropes two stools were placed upon the ground for the accused and another on the other side of the column for the lictor, and around the shed outside many piles of logs.
When the aforementioned degraded persons reached the said place of execution, they got down from the cart, and entered the hut, where in the guise and clothes in which they were brought there, they ascended the two stools prepared for them.
The lictor put ropes upon their neck of which they were scarcely conscious, for the confessor and the other friar who bore the crucifix were continually strengthening them in Christ. When the ropes had been placed in position, the lictor’s assistants drew away the stools from beneath their feet and thus they were hanged and gave up the ghost.
After they were dead they were taken down from the pillar, stripped to their shirts and placed in a sitting position upon the said stools, propped against the pillar, and bound to the column with the chain beneath their arms. Then the fire was kindled and their bodies burned. The lictor heaped up the logs many times until after the hour of vespers, that the bodies might be entirely consumed, and thus the fire lasted until the following morning.
On the following day, about the hour of vespers, ashes, in which many of the bones were still found, were collected by certain of the society of Misericordia with a broom, placed in a sack in a new chest, and with the cross and the usual procession was borne by the said society to the church appointed for the purpose and buried.
As shockingly impious as the forgery of papal bulls sounds (and was), this sort of fraud was very much a thing. Papal bulls were never confined to only grand matters, but issued for all sorts of everyday reasons. In a world where nobody could shoot an email to the Holy See to confirm this or that declaration, a document blazoned with the papal keys which asserted some local monastic prerogative or personal perquisite could be law for a good long time.
Innocent VIII, born Giovanni Battista Cibo, is scarcely the most egregiously disreputable cleric* of the age — the guy after him was a Borgia, after all — and as may be seen from today’s entry had a care for at least the public relations debacle of particularly flagrant abuses.
But as a Renaissance pontiff, Innocent had a brood of illegitimate children and a view of St. Peter’s Throne as a seat for nakedly worldly ambition — marrying, for instance, one son to the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici in a deal that also obtained a cardinal’s hat for a Medici relation who in time would become Pope Leo X. Wholesale ecclesiastical corruption, including the market in bulls-to-order, was simply part of this world; Domenico and Francesco notwithstanding, Innocent did little to tame it.
The Florentine priest Savonarola first rose to prominence thundering against (and supposedly predicting the death of) this guilty Innocent. But that later Medici pope Leo X would in a few decades’ time meet the more serious challenge to ecclesiastical corruption. When that day came, Martin Luther initially suspected that the papal bull Leo X issued denouncing Luther’s theses might be … a forgery. (The reformer even published a short 1520 manifesto to that effect, “Against the New Bull forged by Eck“.)
* Innocent may be best known as the guy who fired up the coming age of wholesale witch persecutions.
Gold attracts all kinds of people but has a particular allure to crooks and corrupt politicians. When gold was found in California they flowed in from all over the world. Soon the gamblers and thugs had the run of San Francisco. Politicians and judges were bought and paid for. Crime went unpunished. (Usually.)
At the same time San Francisco was growing fast, and was filled with the flimsiest, most flammable wooden buildings imaginable. By 1850 huge fires began to rake the city and while they leveled block after block criminals would loot the homes and businesses of the good citizens who were out trying to fight the flames.
The first vigilance committee formed in 1851 after the fifth fire simply because the city government would do nothing to protect the people. The committee, made up of most of the leading citizens and with the backing of almost every honest person, hung a few men and chased a lot more out of town. Within months things improved dramatically and the committee disbanded.
But it’s hard to keep crooks that are in cahoots with corrupt politicians under control for long and by 1855 things were in terrible shape once more. Gold production was down, voting fraud was rampant, banks and business failed, a city supervisor slipped out of town just before his imminent arrest for a major real estate scam involving city money and a pier we now know as Fisherman’s Wharf.
James King of William, a once well-known banker who had lost everything in the collapse of 1855 was now running a small newspaper, The Evening Bulletin, devoted to exposing the corruption in the city. King was fearless in his reporting and ruthless but impartial in his editorials.
Yet things were still a mess in 1856 when the gambler, Charles Cora, took his doxy, a high powered and wealthy Madame called Belle, to the theater. By her presence she offended the young and ambitious US Marshal Richardson and a heated dispute arose between the two men. Then, days later, after that dispute was resumed in a local saloon, Cora shot Richardson in the chest in cold blood at point blank range.
King denounced the city officials who were holding Cora for trial, saying that the man could not be found guilty of even such a blatant crime in a city as corrupt as San Francisco. And as King predicted, amid charges of bribery, the jury in the trial of Charles Cora could not reach a verdict and Cora had escaped his punishment for murder. King then went after James P. Casey, a city supervisor, and exposed him as having once been a prisoner in New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison.
Casey was incensed and on May 14th stormed into the offices of the Bulletin and protested loudly. King ordered him out. Casey went but waited just up the street. An hour later, when King left for the day, Casey walked up to him in the middle of Montgomery Street and shot him down with a Navy Colt.
The news spread fast. Tens of thousands of people soon gathered.
Casey, joined by his powerful friends, went straight to the jail where Cora was still held for his own protection. Soon the crowd arrived. The local militia was called in to guard the place and there was no trouble that night. The next morning members of the old Committee of Vigilance met and by the time King died on May 20th a new committee had been formed and already had 3,500 members.
By now most of the militia sided with the vigilantes, so when the committee marched in mass to the jail and surrounded it, the jailers soon were soon persuaded to turn Casey over. A short time later the committee returned for Cora. The prisoners were taken to the committee’s headquarters, known as Fort Gunnybags, on Sacramento Street and held there under guard.
Both men were appointed lawyers and put on trial by the vigilantes. Each was convicted with a unanimous verdict.
On May 22nd they were hanged from short platforms extending from second floor windows of Fort Gunnybags before an enormous crowd of San Franciscans who filled the streets, buildings and roof tops all around. The Committee of Vigilance continued to operate until they were convinced that all corrupt politicians and crooks had been purged from city. This resulted in a wholesale change of the political power in San Francisco.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, an exciting tale of the early California gold rush. His rich history of that incredible era at can be found at mygoldrushtales.com.
Cycles of violence often climax in executions. On this date in 1736, the execution of Andrew Wilson instead initiated the cycle … which culminated in one of the most notorious riots in Scottish history.
That January, Wilson, George Robertson, and William Hall had robbed an excise tax collector of £200, earning all three of them a death sentence. Hall drew a commutation, and Robertson spectacularly escaped from the condemned men’s sermon when he bolted for the door while Wilson obstructed the guards. (All the civilians present stood aside for the fleeing man, who successfully reached Holland and safety.)
Public sympathy for the self-sacrificing Wilson — whose victim was collecting a much-resented levy for the much-resented new British Union — had become acute by April 14th, when Wilson was to be publicly executed in the Grassmarket.
[The escape of Robertson] made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard.
This Captain John Porteous of the also-resented Edinburgh City Guard was not a well-calculated selection to calm everyone’s nerves.
He’d hooked up the lucrative officers’ appointment courtesy of political pull, then proceeded to become a violent, overbearing ass and “procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city.”
Wilson was executed, as Ramsay says, “with all decency & quietnes,” but when the body was being removed the irritable crowd favored its obnoxious guards with a few missiles. Porteous, who obviously wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek type, destructively escalated the confrontation.
After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. … I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place.
There were up to 30 casualties, and the temper of that fierce Edinburgh mob went from bad to worse over the ensuing months.
Authorities were obliged by public outrage to arrest Porteous for murder, and in an electric trial with a good deal of witness testimony scrambled by the post-hanging chaos, Porteous himself was condemned to hang.
We might, however, suppose with Scott that “if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers” — to say nothing of the “natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority.” It’s not as if there are a lot of cops charged with capital crimes today for even the most egregious homicides.
Intervention to block the hanging came straight from London at the instigation of first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose intervention was also not liable to tame any passions. Instead …
In the ensuing riot, an Edinburgh lynch mob overpowered Captain Porteous’s guards at the Tolbooth and hauled the scoundrel out to the Grassmarket where he was beaten and hanged on a dyer’s pole.
Despite a £200 reward for the authors of Porteous’s death, and a passing Parliamentary threat to revoke the city’s charter altogether, no Edinburgher ever talked, and no person was ever prosecuted for the Porteous riots.
The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s novel that features these infamous riots, was also the nickname for the the Old Tolbooth, the Edinburgh gaol where both Wilson and Porteous were housed before their respective unfortunate demises. Today, the Heart only remains as a literal heart-shaped mosaic in the city’s paving-stones marking the building’s former location.
Generations of passersby have paused to hawk a loogie on this design as a gesture of the citizenry’s lasting contempt for the long-demolished prison.
The present-day “Heart of Midlothian” in Edinburgh’s paving-stones. (cc) image from Lee Carson.
Much less hostile is the reception given Walter Scott’s oeuvre.
The names of the novelist’s books and their characters were often repurposed by Scots to name nigh anything … stuff like, a Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club in Edinburgh, from which in turn emerged a cadre of sportive youth who formed the still-extant Heart of Midlothian Football Club.
On this date in 1677, Thomas Sadler and William Johnson were hanged at Tyburn for one of the most impudent burglaries in English history.
“Thomas Sadler alias Clarke, William Johnson alias Trueman and Thomas Reneger … broke burglariously into the dwelling house of Heneage Lord Finch the Lord Chancellor of the said Lord the King and then and there stole and carried off a silver mace gilt gold worth one hundred pounds and two velvet purses imbroydered with gold and and silver and sett with pearles, worth forty pounds, of the goods and chattels of the said Lord the King.”
The robbers, to their misfortune, were little better conscious of this crucial precaution.
They paraded through the darkened streets with mace poised on shoulder, a glorious revelry of knaves celebrating what they surely anticipated was the signal achievement of their lives — and the knell of their deaths.
Upon return to their lodging-house, and having no particular place to stash this hottest of loot, they just stuck it in a cabinet. There, the landlady ran across it while cleaning, and raised the alarum.
So Sadler and Johnson died for the astounding crime — Reneger, who didn’t, hadn’t been involved in a previous robbery that Sadler and Johnson committed, which might have helped mitigate his guilt — along with three distinctly undercard common criminals whom even the Newgate Ordinary scarcely noticed.
Johnson left a mournful little self-eulogy, many centuries since lost but preserved for us in that Ordinary’s evocative text.
Before his Tryal, having an excellent fancie, and a hand no less happy at Limning, he had drawn most lively on the wall of his Chamber in Newgate, a pair of Scales, and in one balance the Mace, and in the other Tyburn; the last much over weighing the first: But since his Condemnation, he drew in one Scale the Gallows, in the other a Crucifix; the first mounted up by the greater weight of the last, and these lines under-written, as I have been informed.
My Precious Lord, from all Transgressions free, Was pleas’d, in tender pity unto me, To undergo the Ignominious Tree.
I Suffer justly; but his Sacrifice, I trust, shall make my groveling Spirit rise, And from the Gibbet mount the glorious Skies.
On this date* in 1561, the once-powerful Cardinal Carlo Carafa was put to death by strangulation in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — victim of deadly Vatican politics.
Fruit of a powerful Neapolitan noble house — it was a Carafa who stuck fig leafs on Michelangelo nudes — Carlo Carafa went out on campaign in the dynastic wars chewing up the peninsula in the 16th century. In some outlandish vindictive pique, he elevated an offense from a Spaniard into not only a reason to switch sides to the French, but a reason to do stuff like massacre Spaniards in a captured hospital. Class act all the way.
In this capacity, he had the whip hand in Vatican foreign policy in the late 1550′s … until the growing reports of his reprobate lifestyle led Paul IV to demote him. Virulently anti-Protestant, the obnoxiously upright Paul had been preoccupied intensifying the Inquisition. He took personal umbrage once convinced of his relative’s unworthiness: “He had planned to make his reign the period of great reforms,” writes Kenneth Meyer Setton. “The corruption of Cardinal Carlo Carafa had made a travesty of his efforts.”
now you should mourn
handsome Ascanio himself, Ascanio, O pity!
Ascanio, whom Carafa loved more than his own eyes:
Ascanio, whose face was handsomer
than that of the Trojan cupbearer, who pours for the gods
(Carafa had a plentiful menu of heterosexual scandals attributed, too. And other good stuff like starting an idiotic war of choice — with Spain, of course — that despoiled Church coffers and reversed the Vatican’s strategic interests.)
In such a state of disgrace — and more importantly, having been stymied in their anti-Spanish foreign policy — the Carafa house and faction was in line for something more serious than public humiliation when the disappointed octogenarian pontiff passed away later in 1559.
Upon the succession of a rival Medici pope, Pius IV, Carlo Carafa was hailed before a kangaroo court with his brother and partner-in-dissipation Giovanni on a rap sheet with every real and imagined indiscretion of their wild years.† Carlo was strangled and Giovanni Carafa beheaded.
Despite the nephews’ undoubted viciousness, their executions were basically about power and policy.
And though they had also screwed up policy, the next pope decided to look forward-backward, not backward-backward. In 1567, Pius V posthumously rehabilitated the naughty dead Carlo; today, you’ll find his now-vindicated remains interred at the family chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva cathedral.
“The people wish to be deceived; let them be deceived.”
400th death-day congratulations go to John Selman, a brass-balled nimblefingers who was hanged on this date in 1612 for stealing … at Whitehall … on Christmas … in the presence of the king. And, Selman himself added in his scaffold confessional, “in the time of divine Service, and the celebration of the Sacred Communion.” That’s like hitting for Stuart England’s malefaction cycle.
This common thief had tried to blend among the ermine-clad set at church with a black-velvet cloak getup, but drawn enough suspicion to be nabbed with a 40-shilling purse he’d brazenly boosted from a nobleman‘s retainer.
Francis Bacon, one of Selman’s judges, affected a suitably hyperbolic indignation at the effrontery of it all: “The first and greatest sinne that ever was committed was done in Heaven. The second was done in Paadise, being Heaven upon Earth, and truly I cannot chuse but place this in the third ranke.” Tens of thousands of human beings in the judge’s immediate ambit — England, Europe — had been slaughtering one another to the glory of God for the past century when Bacon said that. He’d surely give Nancy Grace a run for her money.
Then as now crime moved copy, and if the realm’s lord magistrates were ready to measure this guy up against Beelzebub, one can readily imagine the woodblock tweets he sent a-flying among the hoi polloi. Selman’s audacious escapade relieved his last days’ dread with the gift of celebrity. Writers scrambled to churn out Selman-tinged copy, like these inevitable ballads.
With hands and eyes to heaven,
all did in reverence stand:
While I in mischife used mine eye,
and my accursed hand,
Now was my mischiefe ripe.
my villanyes full growne,
And now the God in secret knew it.
did make it open knowne.
Hopefully God got a cut of the action from these writers. Talk about a Christmas gift for a scribe.
No less a personage than Ben Jonson hastily wrote Selman into his Twelfth Night masque Love Restored as “the Christmas Cutpurse”: this debuted the same night the real Selman made his last peace with God and man awaiting the next day’s hanging on the road to Charing Cross. (After all this Christmas reverence, they piously held off on the hanging until the full twelve days of Christmas had elapsed.)
At playes and at sermons and at the Sessions,
‘Tis daily their practice such booty to make;
Yea under the gallows, at executions,
They stick not the stare-abouts’ purses to take;
Nay, one without grace, at a better place,
At Court, and in Christmas, before the Kings face.
Alack then for pitty! must I bear the curse,
That only belongs to the cunning Cut-purse?
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv’d by thy nurse,
Than live to be hang’d for cutting as purse.
Jonson sure got that right: under Selman’s own gallows-tree this day, “one of his quality (a picke-pocket I meane) even at his execution, grew master of a true mans purse, who being presently taken, was imprisoned, and is like the next sessions to wander the long voiage after his grand Captaine Mounsier Iohn Selman.”
He never disclosed the money’s whereabouts, presumably taking the secret with him to the grave. (Or to the organ donor market.)
As gangster capitalists go, Yang could hardly be considered exemplary either by scale or by ruthlessness. His peculation undoubtedly harmed many people, but there’s no known whiff of violence about him; he was caught after attempting suicide.
But by the same token, the occasional sacrifice of such middling malefactors potentially helps discharge some of the tension generated by the structural inequality accompanying China’s new oligarchy. What to do in such a world?